France: Reinforcing protection for interns

New legislation in France stipulates that internships cannot be used to fulfil tasks normally performed in permanent jobs and removes any possibility of internships lasting longer than the current maximum six months. This follows several other legislative initiatives in recent years to protect interns. The new measures give them guaranteed pay, paid holidays and restaurant vouchers.

Background

The number of internships has almost tripled in the last decade, partly because of their widespread use in the secondary and higher education sectors: 600,000 were offered in 2006, but there are now 1.6 million internships a year. In France interns (or ‘stagiaires’) are often said to get a rough deal from employers.

This could change after the adoption of Law no. 2014-788 of 10 July 2014 on the development, training and improving the status of trainees (in French) which contains a number of measures to improve their working conditions. These include guaranteed pay, paid holidays and restaurant vouchers. Regulation in this area demands a delicate balance: students should be protected from potential abuse by companies tempted to take advantage of skilled and cheap labour, but companies should not be discouraged from offering internships that give young people the experience they need to eventually find a job.

A complex legislative framework

The new law complements the existing legislative framework on internships.

A law of 31 March 2006 made it mandatory to draft an agreement and conditions of service when the intern’s training period is greater than three months. It also stipulates that courses not integrated into an educational curriculum can last no longer than six months.

A law of 25 November 2009 the minimum length of internships for which pay is mandatory to two months, and prohibited internships that were not integrated into an educational curriculum.

The ‘Cherpion Law’ of July 2011, strengthened existing measures and introduced further protection for French interns. These include the signing of a tripartite contract between employer, intern and their educational establishment, further limits to the duration of internships, a mandatory break between two successive traineeships in the same position, stipulated a monthly payment, increased the involvement of works councils and set rules on probationary periods for subsequent employment.

The Act of 22 July 2013 stated that internships cannot be used for the execution of a regular task corresponding to a permanent job in an organisation and extended the circumstances in which internships could last longer than the current maximum six months.

Key changes

Working conditions

Interns are now entitled to the same maximum working hours and rest periods as employees. They are not allowed to work longer hours than employees and they cannot be assigned to ‘dangerous’ tasks. Interns are also entitled to access staff restaurants or company food stamps, have paid holidays and subsidised transport to work.

To make it easier for labour inspectors to detect fraudulent internships, companies are now required to record interns on the staff register, including their name, arrival date and school. The deadline for the labour court to decide whether an intern status should be converted to that of an employee has been reduced to one month.

Pay

Pay is now mandatory for any internship lasting longer than two months. Once the two-month limit is passed, the intern is also entitled to pay backdated to the first day of the internship. The new law raises the minimum pay of interns. For all internship that last for at least two months, pay will rise gradually from the current €436 a month by 15%, to reach €523.26 in September 2015.

Limited number of interns

The law limits the number of interns at one company on the basis of the number of employees it has. No more than 10% of the company’s workforce can be interns. Violations of this limit are punishable by fines ranging from €2,000 to €4,000.

A maximum period

The six-month maximum duration for an internship remains unchanged, but all exceptions allowing for a longer period are removed.

Social partner reactions

Even before the adoption of the law, the President of Movement of French Enterprises (MEDEF), Pierre Gattaz, called for a ‘moratorium’ on several bills to put pressure on companies over internships. Some companies remain dubious about this new regulation, saying they would have preferred a stricter application of the Labour Code and effective control of the existing regulation.

However, the law was supported by the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT) and the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) because it provides real advances ‘through the balance of labour power’.

One of the main student unions, UNEF, also expressed its general satisfaction with the law while regretting setbacks in the final text. Génération Précaire, a lobby group which campaigns against the exploitation of interns, slammed the bill for not going far enough. In a Tweet the group denounced those behind the proposed law for ‘refusing to improve the situation for interns’.

Commentary

This law certainly contributes to a strengthened framework for internships. Improvement in the status of interns is real, even though, as the CFDT and the UNEF point out, there is still no mandatory pay for the first month.

But it is uncertain whether this legislation will be more effective than previous reforms. It does grant increased powers to the labour inspectorate, and the possibility of converting an internship agreement into an employment contract may stop companies substituting interns for permanent workers. This is thought to affect about 100,000 interns.

However, some critics argue that this new protection may drastically reduce the number of internships at a time when youth unemployment is very high.

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